Bridging the Gap: A Conversation with Bertha Anderson
Part of NAFSA’s work involves liaising with government agencies on behalf of advisers who facilitate the goals of international educational exchange while ensuring institutional and individual compliance with applicable laws and government policies. Many international educators in the United States who are responsible for this work on their campus are familiar with the Office of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman (CIS Ombudsman).
NAFSA staff and member volunteers work regularly with Bertha Anderson, who is the Chief of Public Engagement for the CIS Ombudsman’s office. Anderson spoke with International Educator about the mission of the CIS Ombudsman, how the office works with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and her office’s policy priorities. She also shares about her own journey and experience in international education, what she enjoys most about her job, and what to expect from the CIS Ombudsman’s office this year.
Can you provide an overview of the CIS Ombudsman’s mission and work?
I would be happy to, thanks for asking. The Office of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman acts as a liaison between the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the public on certain immigration matters.
Our mission is to:
- assist individuals and employers in resolving problems experienced when seeking immigration benefits (such as Green Cards, citizenship, or work authorization) from USCIS;
- identify and analyze trends and areas where people have problems dealing with USCIS; and
- recommend changes in USCIS’ administrative practices to mitigate systemic problems and enhance processes.
Our office receives thousands of requests for case assistance each year, and we host more than 150 public engagements throughout the year.
What is the relationship between the CIS Ombudsman and USCIS?
The CIS Ombudsman’s office is not a part of USCIS. Instead, we report directly to the deputy secretary of Homeland Security. As an ombudsman’s office, we are impartial, independent, and confidential. Our office advocates for a fair and consistent process, not for a specific outcome. We look at all sides of a particular issue to try to resolve the problem and maintain an efficient immigration system.
This being said, we work closely with USCIS throughout the year. We meet regularly with USCIS leadership to ensure that our work is consistent with our policy priorities and reflects the trends we identify from case assistance requests and our engagements. In addition, we work frequently with USCIS offices at headquarters and across the country—including with service centers, field offices, and asylum offices—to try to resolve cases.
You mentioned your office’s policy priorities. What are the current priorities of the CIS Ombudsman?
In fiscal year 2022, several of our policy priorities are relevant to international students. These include advance parole, expedite requests, case processing backlogs, employment authorization documents, USCIS’ digital strategy, and the agency’s fee-for-service structure. To further engage with the public, we plan to increase our social media presence and expand our engagement with underserved communities, such as individuals with limited English proficiency.
We are also planning for more stakeholder-focused sessions to supplement our existing topic-specific engagements. This will include hosting roundtables with specific stakeholder audiences, such as employers, legal service providers, and humanitarian organizations. We anticipate that one of these roundtables will be geared toward designated school officials (DSOs) and other stakeholders interested in international student issues.
Many NAFSAns have noted that the CIS Ombudsman’s stakeholder webinars are well done and very helpful. How do you determine the need for webinars, topics, and the subject matter expert speakers?
Thank you. We appreciate NAFSA’s participation in our engagements and really value the feedback that stakeholders raise during these events. We select our webinar topics based on our office’s policy priorities, as well as hot topics that arise throughout the year. Sometimes, these topics stem from changes in immigration policies, procedures, or executive orders/directives. Other times, we design engagements to address questions or concerns stakeholders have raised.
We appreciate NAFSA’s participation in our engagements and really value the feedback that stakeholders raise during these events.
We aim to invite speakers (most often from USCIS) who have subject-matter expertise in the area being discussed and who can provide comprehensive and accurate responses to participants’ questions. This also allows subject-matter experts to hear directly from applicants, petitioners, legal representatives, and other stakeholders about challenges they are encountering related to USCIS programs and policies.
Could you share a little bit with us about your own background? What are your connections to international education?
Certainly. I have 20 years of experience in the private and public sectors, both in the United States and overseas. I joined the CIS Ombudsman’s office in May 2020 to establish the Public Engagement Division. Before taking on my current position, I worked for the USCIS External Affairs Directorate’s Public Engagement Division where I led strategic outreach efforts to disseminate immigration policies and information. Some of the topics I worked on included Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), electronic case processing, and employment-based immigration. In addition, I managed the international students portfolio, working closely with stakeholders such as NAFSA to address questions and identify issues impacting the foreign student community.
You completed a doctoral degree a couple of years ago. How does your doctoral work inform your work at the CIS Ombudsman’s office?
That’s correct. I hold a PhD in public administration and political affairs from Virginia Tech, a master’s degree in communications from American University, and a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Universidad de las Americas in Mexico. My PhD dissertation analyzed the institutionalization of external facing ombudsman offices in the U.S. federal government as a mechanism to ensure government accountability, transparency, and equal access (to give the public an outlet to address grievances).
One of the offices that I researched was the CIS Ombudsman. As I mentioned previously, the CIS Ombudsman’s mission is to help people resolve problems they are experiencing with USCIS, identify trends and problem areas, and recommend changes to USCIS on how to mitigate these problems. My research provided a solid foundation for understanding government administration and some of the challenges that stakeholders encounter when seeking government services, as well as opportunities to improve efficiency and customer service within federal agencies.
As a result, in 2017, I recommended in my dissertation that the CIS Ombudsman expand its outreach efforts to foster stakeholder engagement as a way to fulfill its mission. And here I am today, bringing that recommendation into reality.
Going back to your experience at USCIS—how did your time there inform your work at the CIS Ombudsman’s office?
My experience at USCIS was extremely valuable in preparing me for my current role. Understanding the way USCIS works gives me a unique perspective on what is operationally feasible, how to navigate the agency, and how to share stakeholder feedback in a constructive manner. During my time at USCIS, I had great supervisors and mentors who gave me the opportunity to lead public engagement efforts at the national level.
I hope we can build on that foundation to further strengthen our partnerships with NAFSA and other groups who truly are our eyes and ears on the ground in the communities they serve.
I was fortunate to gain a comprehensive understanding of the immigration stakeholder landscape and a strong grasp of the issues that are important to our stakeholders, including the international student population. Here at the CIS Ombudsman’s office, I hope we can build on that foundation to further strengthen our partnerships with NAFSA and other groups who truly are our eyes and ears on the ground in the communities they serve.
What’s the part of your job you enjoy most?
I am an immigrant, and I enjoy being able to give back to the community by disseminating relevant and timely information. I love meeting with a wide variety of stakeholder groups, particularly some of the smaller stakeholders who may not be aware of our services or may not have as much access to USCIS as larger organizations.
Over the past year, as part of our virtual outreach efforts, we have been able to meet with stakeholder groups, including universities, around the country. During every meeting, I learn something new about the challenges international students face, which helps to further shed light on the important issues raised by NAFSA and other national stakeholder groups. We highlighted many of these issues during our 2021 Annual Report to Congress. It is very rewarding to see the impact of our work when our feedback and recommendations lead to USCIS making policy or programmatic changes that minimize barriers for immigrants.
What parts of your work would surprise NAFSAns?
The CIS Ombudsman’s office is relatively small. We have roughly 40 federal employees, but we receive thousands of requests for casework each year, reaching a historical high of more than 24,000 requests in fiscal year 2021. In addition, we host more than 150 public engagements every year, have met with stakeholders in 23 states and the District of Columbia, and shared more than 50 recommendations with USCIS last year. One of the reasons we greatly value our collaboration with NAFSA is that it helps us to expand our outreach to DSOs and international students across the country. This helps us to continue building awareness about our mission and services and to gather stakeholders’ and applicants’ feedback.
Any hints about developments on the horizon for both the CIS Ombudsman’s office and USCIS?
This administration understands that our success as a nation of immigrants is rooted in our historic process of integrating newcomers into the social, cultural, and economic fabric of our country—an experience known to us through many of our own families. For the CIS Ombudsman, as I mentioned earlier, we are really focused in the coming year on increasing our outreach with underserved and vulnerable communities, as well as expanding our footprint with congressional stakeholders and members of the military and their families.
This administration understands that our success as a nation of immigrants is rooted in our historic process of integrating newcomers into the social, cultural, and economic fabric of our country.
Something relevant to the international student community is that we would like to bridge the gap in communication between DSOs and USCIS, ICE, CBP, and the Department of State. We continue to focus on ensuring we are current with our case processing and that we provide comprehensive and timely case assistance services to as many people as possible while maintaining the integrity of our case assistance process.
For USCIS, I anticipate that the next year will bring expanded online filing and other digital tools. I think there will also be a renewed focus on customer service as well as an ongoing focus on minimizing barriers to the immigration process, including naturalization, in accordance with Executive Order 14012, Restoring Faith in our Legal Immigration Systems and Strengthening Integration and Inclusion Efforts for New Americans that was issued in February 2021. •
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International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work.
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NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA's 10,000 members are located at more than 3,500 institutions worldwide, in over 150 countries.